Holly Rees is ambitious. Throughout the hour we sit talking the words more, bigger and next level are used a lot. Everything is leading into the next thing, her first EP lead to the second which then lead to a UK tour and then to leaving Newcastle for a year to do a Canadian tour which then lead her to do a departing show with a full band. There’s a masterplan in the works, and Holly’s right on track.
Holly Rees, for the uninitiated, is an artist of two halves. The first is heartwarming folk singer/songwriter, the other is loveable idiot. The loveable idiot is what comes out after more than five minutes with her. As she sits down in the coffee shop, having legged it from the other side of Newcastle city centre to be here in time, she has to take her inhaler before beginning to talk.
With a bloody massive year ahead it would seem daft to not address the elephant in the room – her trip to Canada. “I think doing scary things is important” she states through a mouthful of pizza and she goes on to list the ways she’s thrown herself in at the deep end in the past.
She’s done so much she even forgets some of them, I bring up her recent trip to France doing restoration work and she laughs it off “Oh yeah I did, that was a bit mad. Gotta build those roofs.” The trip was also an outing for dad hat Holly, her DIY alter ego. Her father was a builder and so she brings out the dad hat to do odd job and DIY that she learned from him.
“I started doing music because it was a terrifying thing and I lived in Italy for half a year a few years ago and didn’t speak the language. That was terrifying to go somewhere where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language whereas at least I know English, so I’ll be able to speak to everyone.” she pauses, “Mostly. Apart from the French part where I’ll be lost as well.”
She decided Canada was on the cards around 18 months ago in the midst of a good old fashioned birthday freak out. Canada run a working holiday visa in for under 30s and upon turning 25, took she the plunge: “I turned 25 last year and I was like “Oh no, I only have five years left and this is a thing I want to do. I’ve got to go do it!”
“I got the visa and then I was like “Oh no, now I have to go” but it’s just one of those things I’ve always wanted to do like a big road trip. I love the idea of making it into a tour as well because when I went on tour in August it was the best thing ever but that was just the UK and it was quite a small scale in comparison to C A N A D A.”
She’s going it alone too, “People keep asking me if Matt [Dunbar] is coming because we were on tour together and I wish Matt was coming. I think Matt also wishes he was coming but he has commitments and he’s an adult whilst I continue to refuse to become an adult.” Like she said though, doing scary things is important.
“The closer it gets and the more planned I have it the less I’m scared,” she says through a slurp of hot chocolate, the plan is to go province to province each month after arriving in Toronto. She’s also going to stop off for some exploring in Alaska but there’ll be no shows there, “that’ll be cold” she laughs.
A big part of the trip is about living life to it’s fullest and exploring the world while she has the opportunity she tells me, “you have to really live life to be able to write about it so this is me going to do that.” She hopes it’ll make her a better musician when she comes back to Newcastle. Despite living on the Isle of Wight with her grandparents at the moment, Holly is utterly in love with Newcastle. She sees it as essential to go place she wants to, like Canada, before settling in Newcastle forever. After our interview, Holly tells me how she’s off to the tattoo parlour so she can get a tattoo of northern heather on her arm so as to calm any homesickness whilst she’s away next year.
As soon as Newcastle and her headline show comes up Holly grins from ear to ear, she can’t stop saying the word excited and it makes me a little giddy too to see her so happy about the show. It’s the first time she’s playing with a full band. “Obviously there are some drums in some of the tracks on Magpie but it just takes it to a whole new level to have bass in it and then also, songs from my first EP Ilex, haven’t ever had anything on them and now ‘His Thermos Song’ has a proper 60s vibe and I love it.”
Potentially Think Tank could be a daunting venue for an artist that brands themselves as folk. The 8-foot poster of Charles Manson on the ceiling doesn’t quite fit the vibe but it can be done Holly reckons. She supported Sam Lavery a while ago “it was an odd choice anyway because she’s very poppy and there was me at like peak “here’s some really sad, gay songs” she laughs.
“Even though it was a different sound to feature solo everyone was still really great like it was received well and people still had a dance to the more upbeat sad ones. You can do it, I think it’s just next level to do it with a band though. I do think some of the songs I write lean towards having a band and then there’s some even at the big headliner in December that I’m gonna do solo.”
The band is composed entirely of friends other bands and creative projects around Newcastle. Olive from PICNIC is on the keys, Ryan, who’s directed all of Holly’s music videos, is playing bass and Rhys from St. Buryan is on drums even though he was technically never asked to be in the Breakfast Club.
“I met Rhys through Spark Sunderland. I think that even the first time we met, which was live on Spark, we were just chatting and we got on so well that both of us just thought “right okay, we’ve got to be friends now”. I was talking to him about the idea of a farewell gig and I can’t remember if I even asked, it was just like “yeah, obviously you’re playing drums.”
Being a John Hughes fan, the idea to call the band The Breakfast Club came about easily: “it has the iconic ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ which is quite fitting for a farewell gig and I like that it’s a band of sort of misfits, or a mix of people getting together, I like that as an idea.” Although shockingly half of the band are still as of yet to see the film. “We’re gonna have to have a forced band cinema night” she suggests.
Having friends creative friends isn’t just useful for making bands though, for the past two years Holly had lived with her sister who is a playwright: “We had such a creative little household and it was really cute because even though they’re completely different types of writing it’s just really nice to always be things happening.
That being said, one of my best friends, he’s such a maths-y physics kind of person but he still has an interesting outlook on my music and on my art, as I do painting as well, I find all people are pretty great individually. Collectively we are terrible.”
On the topic of people being terrible and terrible times comes her newest single ‘Stick Around’, which is due for release in two-ish weeks on December 1st. She explains that the single was written: “around the time when there was a lot of stuff in the press about musicians having killed themselves, there was Frightened Rabbit, and it was really horrible.”
“I have a lot of friends that I just wanted to say “Hey just stick around” and that it’s gonna get better. It’s kind of a song about that, the idea that you might be in a shitty place now but just stick around because there’s so much more out there to do and see and experience, that’s what the song’s about.”
It’s just as much for herself as her friends though, Holly’s got a ‘Healing Tunes’ playlist she tells me and it’s for when she’s in a bad place. Suffering from a whole host of mental disorders including depression, anxiety, and PTSD, the playlist for when she needs to stop and calm down. It’s important for her that she wrote a song of her own to fit into ‘Healing Tunes’.
‘Stick Around’ has a calming aura from the get-go, it’s gentle but the message is powerful. Gentle but powerful is a great way, to sum up, Holly’s music and this comes as no surprise when her idols are the likes of Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, and Courtney Barnett. Not ones to mince their words, Holly stays in their vein of honest, sometimes painfully so, songwriting.
On a lighter note, we end on what the lovely people of Newcastle and the greater North East should listen to in the absence of Holly next year, and she’s not short of ideas. Her eyes light up as she says “I’m obsessed with everybody. I’m really obsessed with PICNIC as everyone can tell. We’ve got so much talent here it’s insane.”
She rattles off a few more names, The Lake Poets, This Little Bird and Matt Dunbar then bursts into a line of Llovers’ newest single ‘Go Get Her, Go Getter’. “I really love at the moment Llovers ‘Go Get Her, Go Getter’. Sam Fender. Can we just appreciate Sam Fender for a minute, for a hot second? He definitely doesn’t need a shoutout from me but yeah ‘Dead Boys’ is amazing.”
“Have you seen he’s been hand spraying his [Leave Fast] t-shirts? It’s so cool because it’s so do-able. I had this idea before I went on tour and I didn’t end up doing it because it would’ve been too expensive and daft but what I wanted to do was buy from charity shops loads of different t-shirts and print that logo on them so they’re all totally unique. I just love the idea, it’s so daft. You’d have like an Adidas t-shirt but with Holly Rees written on it.”
She stops herself after we escalate the daft ideas to the level of t-shirt cannons and says “if I ever do get to that [big] level, I’ll still be the just an idiot just with more resources to be more of an idiot. This is why I don’t have a manager, no one can tell me not to do this daft stuff.” Fingers crossed Holly continues to self-manage, you never know there could be t-shirt cannons in the works for a welcome home gig of 2020. You heard it here first.